August 28, 2006
A Bird's-Eye View of the Badminton Game
— Martin E. Marty
The late Brooks Hays once said, "I felt like the sparrow that flew into a badminton game." Observing, reporting on, and communing with scholars and activists in the worlds marked "religious" and "secular" is not as hazardous as was Hays' great and delicate work in decades of racial confrontations and change. Yet one does a bit of ducking and soaring when flying into the religious-secular reporting zones.
One pile of clippings on my desk is from humanist magazines that ask nervously, "Can secularism survive?" and "Has unbelief a future?" They assess a national scene in which hard-line and soft-line religion, belligerent and beguiling at once, seems to grow and threaten. The other pile of clippings comes from religious — and in our nation usually Christian — observers and critics of non-, un-, and anti-religious scenes, especially in the media and the academy. Some of the authors offer thoughtful accounts, while others exploit the same scene, exaggerating all reports of legal or attitudinal "onslaughts" on faith.
Among the thoughtful ponderings is emeritus professor C. John Somerville's The Decline of the Secular University, which is not a whining book but one that questions the universities of today for having lost their moorings by failing to address the big questions, which are often religious. Take it seriously.
Then a swing of the badminton racket from the other side of the court comes in the form of an essay by David A. Hollinger, reprinted in his new Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity. That I have high regard for Hollinger should be obvious, since I co-invited him to be the visitor when I co-taught an endowed Brauer Seminar at the University of Chicago more than a decade ago. His take on "ethnoracial, religious, and professional affiliation" — words in his book's subtitle — have long informed me. Now what to make of his essay "Enough Already: Universities Do Not Need More Christianity"? He wrote it after having been a minority voice at a religion-friendly seminar sponsored by the Lilly Endowment.
As the figurative badminton rackets are swung here, this sparrow has to ask whether the two scholars perceive the same boundaries, net, and shuttlecock. Some confusion may result from the fact that Somerville's "inspiration of religion" in culture and Hollinger's use of the term "Christianity" don't quite match. Hollinger wants colleagues to be more about "reinforcing the rules of secular inquiry than bending those rules to pay more homage to Christianity." He agrees that scholars have not paid enough attention to religion, including Christianity, in the academy, but now is concerned that advocates of religious studies and religious motifs in all cultural disciplines too often privilege Christianity and — this surprised me, as I am unaware of it in today's context — that this privileging too often has meant discrimination against Jews. I breathed more easily to read the end of the sentence: "... in blatant forms as recently as the 1940s." That was indeed the case, but would be hard to spot today.
Some critical Christian intellectuals and "ordinary folk" even fault students of religion and religious themes on campuses for not being Christian enough, for being too even-handed and friendly to all religions. Is it "their serve" now?
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.